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Cooperation, Reputation and Supernatural Belief

Peacey, Sarah; (2020) Cooperation, Reputation and Supernatural Belief. Doctoral thesis (Ph.D), UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Belief in supernatural agents, such as gods and witches, has been prevalent in societies throughout history. These beliefs may be adaptive, in helping the individuals who adhere to them survive and reproduce in certain social and ecological conditions. This thesis furthers understanding of why certain patterns of accusations and witchcraft beliefs occur. Supernatural beliefs are associated with reputation, thought to be a mechanism for cooperation. Fear of punishment by gods may promote prosocial behaviour. Accusing an individual of witchcraft may be a negative tag, used to inflict sanctions on competitors, norm violators, or those it is otherwise not profitable to cooperate with. The major part of this thesis analyses witchcraft using a dataset compiled from ethnographic accounts of Bantu cultures from sub-Saharan Africa. This contains society-level variables and individual case studies. I also use pre-existing, cross-cultural datasets. Results suggest that prevalence of witchcraft belief in societies does not co-evolve with societal traits that might predict competition. In witchcraft accusations, including why the sex typically accused differs between societies, individual-level variables correlated more with the characteristics of accusations than society-level traits. While it remains unclear why some accusations have more severe outcomes than others, the study finds a higher number of accusers is more likely to be associated with a lasting reputation as a witch. I conducted a lab-in-field experiment in Northern Ireland, comparing two possible mechanisms for cooperation: 1) the reputational effects of being observed by others and 2) fear of supernatural punishment from high gods. Possible reasons for inconclusive results are discussed. Supernatural beliefs are probably adaptive under particular circumstances relating to human cooperation and conflict. However, as others have found, complex beliefs and patterns mean that conclusions are somewhat ambiguous.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Qualification: Ph.D
Title: Cooperation, Reputation and Supernatural Belief
Event: UCL (University College London)
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
Additional information: Copyright © The Author 2020. Original content in this thesis is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) Licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/). Any third-party copyright material present remains the property of its respective owner(s) and is licensed under its existing terms. Access may initially be restricted at the author’s request.
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS > Dept of Anthropology
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10100183
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